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Arabs See Jewish Conspiracy in Pokemon

Religion: Several nations have banned the toys, saying they promote anti-Islamic behavior.

April 24, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Eight-year-old Abdel Mohsen Medwahi lived for Pokemon. Pokemon trading cards. Pokemon comic books. Pokemon clothing. Pokemon toys. Everything and anything Pokemon.

So it stunned his father, Omar, when the boy solemnly reported the troubling news he had just heard from friends: " 'Pokemon' means 'There is no God in the universe.' "

As a faithful Muslim in Saudi Arabia, a devoutly Muslim country, Omar Medwahi decided to check up on the seemingly harmless make-believe creatures. He called the local Pokemon distributor, who reassured him that Pokemon was short for "pocket monster" and had no religious connotation.

And that would have been the end of it in the Medwahi household. But the rumor took hold, and spread, until Saudi Arabia's top religious authority issued an outright ban, saying Pokemon promotes anti-Islamic behavior--and is suspiciously Jewish. Pokemon was stripped from store shelves, cartons arriving at local ports were turned away, orders were canceled, and schools set up collection points to turn in clothing decorated with Pokemon figures.

Saudi Arabia's response may seem extreme, but its outrage is hardly unique. Pokemon has become a target of religious leaders throughout the Arab world who charge that the game promotes theories of evolution, encourages gambling and, at its core, is part of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at turning children away from Islam.

Despite denials of an anti-Islam bias from Nintendo, the Japanese manufacturer of the cards and electronic games, Muslim leaders in Oman, Qatar, Dubai, Jordan and Egypt have also said Pokemon is religiously unacceptable. Japanese embassies throughout the region have received inquiries from parents and officials who had heard that Pokemon was Japanese for "I am a Jew."

That the issue has erupted into a firestorm in the Arab world tells much about the climate in the region, where tensions between Arabs and Jews are at least as bad as they have ever been, where traditional Arab governments are increasingly worried about cultural assimilation with the West and where rumor is often more powerful than reality.

The Pokemon issue has its roots in the same frustrations experienced by parents everywhere. Children became obsessed with the game, taking the trading cards to school, staying glued to the television program, pestering parents to purchase Pokemon items. But religious faith is so central to everyday life here that social issues automatically become filtered through the religious establishment.

And while there are many who shrug off the conspiracy theories as ludicrous, in this climate of heightened tensions, no one has stood up and said so.

Instead, it is the hard-liners--some with certain political and religious agendas--who have defined the tenor of the public debate.

'A Jewish Plan to Corrupt the Mind'

"It has been proven that this toy is part of a Jewish plan to corrupt the mind of our young generation because it alludes to blasphemous thinking, it mocks our God and our moral values and is therefore extremely dangerous for our youth," said Sheik Abdel Monem abu Zent, a hard-liner and former member of parliament in Jordan who has helped stir up discontent, although he acknowledges that he is not familiar with the game.

Mohammed abu Laila, an academic and preacher based at Al Azhar University, the prestigious seat of Islamic learning in Cairo, said the community's core objection to the game is that it denigrates God. "From the parents' point of view, this game is abusive to Allah," he said. "The characters are insulting to God or spreading atheist ideas or nonreligious ideas."

But he said that while he has no proof of its validity, he has heard, and many parents believe, that characters' names are code words for anti-Islamic terms--such as "Be a Jew."

The decibel level of the Pokemon debate has raised concerns within the Jewish community in the United States.

"When you start saying, 'The Jews are manipulating children's minds, getting them to gamble, feeding them all kinds of unacceptable behavior,' that is scary. And when it comes wrapped in fatwas, as God's truth, this is God's word, then it becomes a lot scarier," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "It starts in one place, and all of a sudden it has a life."

Pokemon's life began innocently enough in Japan in 1995 as a video game, with few people predicting its success. There are 150 brightly colored characters in the original Pokemon, each a mini-monster with the potential to transform into a more powerful creature. When the game traveled to the United States, Nintendo spun off trading cards, which set off a frenzy among children eager to collect all of the characters in all their forms.

By the time its popularity peaked in the U.S. in 1999, Pokemon was a multimedia phenomenon, with movies and television shows, clothing and toy lines, producing sales in the billions of dollars.

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